Disrupting Social Norms:
An anecdote from a lonely vegan teacher
By Corey John
Doing what you believe to be right can be hard. It can be stressful and at times very isolating. The past two days have reminded me why we must do it.
I am a high school art teacher and I am currently battling (yes, battling) through my second year of teaching. I have quickly learned it is a profession that is just as much challenging as it is rewarding. I just returned from my first two-day retreat with the cohort of about 50 sophomores I currently teach. This annual retreat organized by my co-teachers is designed to temporarily free students and teachers from the physical confines of a school building as well as the pedagogical confines of the regular K-12 classroom hustle. The goal is also to help these students, many of whom have been impacted by serious traumas (racism, homophobia, sexual abuse, etc.) build strong relationships with each other and with us teachers. Throughout the 30+ hours together we did various community-building activities that enabled us to open up about our struggles in a safe environment and enter our “challenge zones”. We also went on nighttime beach hikes, played basketball, did sunrise yoga, and even explored spooky WWII-era bunkers.
Prior to this trip, my students have been aware that I am vegan, and this has resulted in some great conversations about animal rights and speciesism. Speciesism is defined as “a prejudice or bias in favour of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species” (Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 1975). Although many students knew I was opposed to all forms of animal abuse, they were not aware, however, that I have taken the Liberation Pledge, which is comprised of 3 simple parts: 1) Refuse to eat animal-based products (be vegan), 2) Refuse to sit with anyone consuming these products, and 3) Encourage others to do the same. Leading up to this retreat, I let all my students know that I have taken this pledge and expressed that it is something that would prevent me from eating at the same table as them if they were consuming animals or their secretions. I wanted them to know ahead of time so they would not be confused and think I am being antisocial or that I am upset with them.
I essentially explained that animals are my friends and when I see someone eating chicken flesh or cow flesh, I feel the same way they would feel if someone were eating dog or cat flesh. I explained I do not feel comfortable sitting next to these products of violence and remaining silent. I was unable to do this once I bore witness to animal suffering at slaughterhouses and helped care for rescued farm animals in my own home and at sanctuaries. Finally, I (admittedly, with little confidence or enthusiasm) said any of them would be welcome to join me at my table if they happened to eat vegan during the retreat.
My students being the talkative, curious bunch they are, had a lot of questions. They included the array of typical vegan questions or comments I’ve encountered in my years of outreach experience, such as “But plants feel pain,” and “So how do you get protein?” I recognized that these questions came from a place of genuine curiosity and not from a place of sarcasm or persecution like they often do. I patiently answered a few questions on the spot but knew I would have the opportunity to communicate my reasoning for the pledge in the near future.
All of the meals during the retreat took place in a buffet-style dining hall, and each meal had pretty standard dishes available: Chicken sandwiches with fries, pasta with meat sauce, eggs and sausage for breakfast, and finally pizza for lunch today. There was also a small salad bar and even two soups that happened to be vegan and available for some meals. I was surprised and appreciative to find out the chef could also easily prepare a vegan version of each main dish upon request, so I made it a point to order them. I ordered a plant-based patty instead of the chicken, vegan sauce over the meat sauce, a veggie-tofu scramble over eggs, and cheese-less pizza. I knew many of my students’ perceptions of veganism were limited or inaccurate so I wanted to show that I could have a “normal” meal without exploiting animals. For each meal, I got my food and sat at my own table right by the salad bar, which was in its own room separate from the main dining area. It was also conveniently (and awkwardly) positioned so every student and teacher had to walk past me to sit down in their omnivorous eating areas.
To my discomfort and disappointment, I ate the first two meals alone and seemingly unacknowledged for the most part. Some students would walk past me with their flesh-laden plates and give me a gentle smile or even a “Hey” or “What’s up," but no one seemed to be willing to leave animals off their plates for a meal. I was trying my hardest not to let it show, but I of course was feeling pretty defeated. I have been committed to my pledge for about a year and a half now and I have had many trying experiences. This had come to be my most challenging, I think because I was so plainly by myself and I felt like I was sacrificing the opportunity to bond with my students. I never doubted what I was doing was right, but I questioned whether it was effective or worthwhile.
However, toward the end of breakfast this morning, one of my students — we’ll call him Mark — sat down with me to have a bowl of oatmeal. We discussed different topics and were able to enjoy each other’s company very briefly before we all left the dining hall. It was such a short moment, but it meant the world to me.
We then did a group activity to close the retreat in which all 50+ of us sat in a big circle. We went around one person at a time and shared one positive memory from the past day and a half and one hope we had for the future. When it came time for me to speak, I felt this small wave of emotion rise up inside and I shared how much I was impacted by Mark eating with me during breakfast. As my voice and heartbeat wavered I told everyone that adhering to the pledge is constantly putting me in my challenge zone. I said that my hope for each of them is that no matter where they go in life, they are able to do what they feel is right and authentic to themselves, even if they are the only one. Many students snapped in acknowledgement of my comments, and I could tell some were very impacted by what I shared.
It then came time for the last group meal of the retreat, right before we boarded the bus to drive back to reality in Berkeley. Pizza was the main menu item this time, both plain cheese and with animal flesh toppings. The chef had already prepared one very simple cheese-less pizza with a few veggies haphazardly thrown on. There was also a big pot of vegan lentil soup at the salad bar. I got in line with my students, quietly hoping what I shared in our circle would bring about some change. I got my food and turned around to see that two students were already sitting at my table with plates of vegan pizza and salad. I then overheard a student behind me enthusiastically say, “I’ll have the vegan pizza!” and he then walked on over to my table to sit down. Five students (one of whom I know has hunted animals) and one of my co-teachers ended up eating a vegan lunch with me. I was so thrilled to have the chance to experience the unique bonding brought by a shared meal. Although none of my students look particularly thrilled in the photo below, our conversations were really enjoyable and I couldn’t help but smile the entire time. Before boarding the bus I received several appreciation notes from students, almost all of them expressing great admiration of my love of animals and my commitment to my pledge. One student wrote,
“I have a lot of respect for how you stand up for animal rights. It’s super hard to talk about things we really care about to big groups of people, and I admire you for doing that. I think what you’ve shared has made a lot of us, myself included, question our non-veganism.”
This has instantly become my favorite experience of my short two-year teaching career. It has reminded me how much of an advantage young people have over adults in that they are less conditioned to the norms and ideologies imposed upon them by society and therefore are often open to new information. The genuine inquisitiveness of adolescents is one of the many joys of being an educator.
This experience has reinvigorated my drive to speak out against injustice and to do what is right over what is easy. It has deepened my belief in the disruption of the status quo as a tool for catalyzing social change. It is hard to stand up (or in this case, sit down) by yourself, but we must remember that us humans, like our non-human friends, are social beings and we are heavily influenced by those around us. We can let this truth create imaginary obstacles or we can use it to construct a path toward lasting positive change. We must remember that truth and justice always prevail.
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